Finally, in 2016-2017, UCT’s Fallists and their supporters started to try to explain the philosophical basis behind decolonizing the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Long-standing standards

In 1950, Vice Chancellor T.B. Davie set the standard for UCT as a global university: “aiming at the advancement of knowledge by the methods of study and research founded on absolute intellectual integrity and pursued in an atmosphere of academic freedom” through “the untrammelled pursuit of the truth”. In short, a global university has an ethos that epitomizes fair and rational competition between ideas to the extent that logically inferior and empirically flawed ones (or their components) are set aside in order to progress towards an elusive truth.

Davie ‘unfrozen’

In his introductory comments at the 2017 T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture, VC Price described Davies’ standards as: “a live issue not frozen in 1950s” that need to be “reinvestigated, reinterpreted, reunderstood (sic) and reapplied“ in the light of “other issues” and a changing “institutional culture” facilitated by “fierce and robust discussions”.

Transformation Deputy Vice Chancellor Prof. Loretta Feris converted Price’s “contextual reundersanding” of Davie into policy by adopting decolonist philosopher Achille Mbembe’s view that universities should become “pluriversities”. Mbembe/Feris’ African pluriveristy is: “a space where you can have a range of epistemologies; where there is more than one way of producing knowledge; where there is more than one central truth, where there is more than one dominant culture and where there is more than one way of being as a person”.

Launching the ‘pluriversity’

To put the ‘pluriversal’ decolonization of UCT’s curricula on track, VC Price created the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) to work with him and DVC Feris. By design, the CCWG is led by black scholars (mostly from the Faculties of Humanities and Health Sciences) who maintain that the “notion of blackness in this context extends beyond simply a racial category”.

Those who want to ‘justify’ black (or other) self-identification with philosophy, often invoke German philosopher Prof. Martin Heidegger’sDasein”, a “primal nature of being”, a self-identity based on a “shared history and destiny” underpinned by the anti-Cartesian ontology-based belief: I think because I am”.  This exclusionary ethos ‘worked’ for a few years for Hitler and his Nazis, who were bent (with Heidegger’s explicit support) on wiping out Jewry and achieving world domination via war.

The making of a Southern African black Dasein

However, a Dasein for black peoples in Southern Africa might be a bit of a hard-sell.

From perhaps as early as 300,000 BCE, up to the beginning of the common era, the only modern humans in Southern Africa who shared anything remotely resembling a common history/destiny were the highly genetically and linguistically diverse, golden-skinned, hunter/gatherer ‘San’, who lived in nomadic, small, kin-based groups. They lived in relatively unstructured societies and had/have no collective name for themselves. Today, the few San that remain refer to themselves as the “First People”, a claim supported by modern paleo-genomics.

Around 2,000 BCE, larger-statured, pastoral immigrants from the north, who self-identified as Khoikhoi (“the real people”), arrived and soon clashed with the ‘San’, the Khoi word for “foreigners”. Many San died from Khoi-introduced human diseases such as smallpox and measles, were physically displaced into desertic areas or assimilated within the Khoikhoi.  The KhoiKhoi and the San continue to be persecuted, albeit benignly, by a government controlled by fellow ‘blacks’. They are effective refugees within their birth-nation whose languages are not included in the official list.

Bantu-speaking, ‘black’ Africans who had combined knowledge of cattle-keeping, slash-and-burn cultivation and metal-working moved south of the Limpopo River during 300-500 CE. These far better armed and militarily organized farmers further displaced San and Khoikhoi (partially assimilating with the latter), and took control over Southern Africa east of the 400-millimeter rainfall line, with the southwestern limits defined by the Great Kei River. These three human assemblages were geographically distributed parapatrically – separate, but ‘touching’, like the pieces of a puzzle.

Bantu-speaking societies had internally much more complex societal structure, with greater degrees of stratification than found in the KhoiSan. Elders ranked above the young, men over women, rich over poor, and chiefs over commoners. Chiefdom became hereditary, with ‘succession’ often facilitated by intra-familial assassination. Inland Bantu speakers, termed Sotho-Tswana on the basis of their dialects, concentrated in greater numbers around water sources and trading towns with populations of up to 20000. By the late 16th Century, a series of powerful hereditary chiefs ruled from well-appointed capital cities. By contrast, Nguni-language-speaking peoples who settled on the coastal plains between the Highveld and the Indian Ocean, lived in smaller, geographically scattered communities and had less hierarchical socio-political structures; moving their cattle across the countryside in search of fresh pastureland.

Fast-forwarding to the first third of the 19th century, the Mfecane (derived from the Xhosa term “starving intruders”), created even more socio-economic heterogeneity and turmoil among Southern African ‘blacks’.

Eurocentric historians in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries portrayed the mfecane as the result of often sophisticated, highly militarily aggressive and murderous nation building by the (still very influential) Zulu under the short (10 years), brutal rule of Shaka (who murdered women who fell pregnant by him); the Nbebele under (the arguably even more murderous) Mzilikazi and the Sotho leader Moshoeshoe. The latter two probably had more constructive, ‘shared’ socio-economic intercourse with European missionaries, e.g. Robert Moffat, than with each other, since, at one time or another they all engaged in internecine warfare.

The, probably exaggerated, descriptions of horrible devastation, demographic disruption and depopulation of Africans (perhaps resulting in more than a million deaths) during the mfecane gave Afrikaner voortrekkers and British settlers ‘excuses’ for moving into the resulting ‘empty’ land, and for further exploiting black refugees as free or cheap labour.  People that Shaka and Mzilikazi’s armies defeated also pillaged, murdered and stole as they fled.  Mzilikazi ended up as the leader of the Matablele in western Zimbabwe and killed all his sons when they challenged his power. His arrival created a long-lasting enmity with the Shona peoples.

By the 1960s, the mfecane and Zulu nation building were ‘reinterpreted’ by Apartheid historians as a ‘black-on-black’ revolution in ‘Bantu Africa’, with Shaka having played a leading role in the creation of a nation in Natal, Mzilikazi in Zimbabwe and Moshoeshoe in Lesotho.

Less biased modern historians cogently challenge the notion that Zulu aggression was the sole, or even primary, cause of the mfecane.

Nevertheless, all the above ‘happened’.

Then there are the ‘Coloured People’, arguably the most morphologically, culturally, religiously and genetically complex and diverse ethnic group on Earth.

Finally, there are the often-ignored effects of conversion of millions of South African blacks to non-African religions.

In short, it is simply incorrect to say that today’s Southern African ‘non-white’ peoples have a long, shared, constructively collaborative history, which laid the foundation for a common collective destiny, other than being oppressed by combinations of ‘white’ people. There certainly is no compelling evidence of a common Dasein.

Nevertheless, even without a ‘black Dasein’, using the theoretical framework of critical realism, the CCWG “got to work”.

What is Critical Realism?  How does it work? 

Critical realism (CR) represents a heterogeneous assemblage of elements produced by a broad alliance of social theorists/researchers to develop a “properly Post-Positivist” (PP) social science.

CRPPists believe that:

  1. lots of different things qualify as research;
  2. scientific theory and ‘real world’ practice cannot be kept separate;
  3. one cannot afford to ignore beliefs for the sake of ‘just the facts’;
  4. the researchers’ motivations for and commitment to research are central and crucial to the enterprise; and
  5. the idea that research is concerned only with scientifically correct techniques for collecting and categorizing information is now inadequate.

In ‘reality’, CR is not an empirical program.  It is not a methodology. It is not even truly a theory, because it explains nothing. It asserts that much of reality exists and operates independently of our awareness or knowledge of it. It emphasizes ontology and pluralism over logic-based, scientific, epistemological competition that filters out less viable ideas and approaches based on their ability to explain phenomena and answer clear-cut questions.

In short, in contrast the Cartesian view: “I think, therefore I am”, CRPPists think because they ARE. Knowledge and truth have only ‘relative’ reality that is always historically, socially, contextually, culturally and at least partially racially situated. There are no truth values or criteria of rationality that exist outside of historical time and current social context. The larger the number of CRPPists involved and the more ‘plural’ their answers/solutions, the longer it takes to pick the ones to implement, let alone get on with the job.

CRPPists use their “passion and intuition” to isolate “subtle underlying and invisible mechanisms”, especially in the light of perceived historical and present transient practices/processes, to show how these acted/act as negative influences because all representations and perspectives have limitations. The “scientific method” is particularly fallible because its proponents are blinkered by objectivity and the scientific knowledge they use to formulate conceptual frameworks is not unique evidence in parsing the empirical world.

CRPPists promote epistemological pluralism, even when ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’ suggest that some plural ‘alternatives’ are demonstrably inferior. This is because CRPPist research is a “messy on-the-ground” process that emphasizes seeing the person, experience and knowledge as ‘multiple, relational and not bounded by reason”. The CRPPist ‘goal’ is to strive to disrupt the predictability that occurs in traditional interviews. There is no need to solve problems; only to find more of them. Affected parties must embrace the contradictions and the tensions they engender, so that ‘research’ can become open-ended.

Approaches, questions and concepts that are anathema to CRPPists include: Statistics.  What is the hypothesis? How big is the sample? How representative is the sample? How can you generalise if you have a small sample? Was there a control group?

Then there are the worst ones of all: objectivity, inviolate principles and universal laws/explanations.

CRPPists portray scientists as researchers who claim to produce absolute and universal truth. In ‘real’ reality however, science is not a magic wand that turns everything it touches to truth. Instead, it’s an unending, iterative process of uncertainty reduction.  Any given scientific study can rarely answer more than one question at a time, often raising new questions in the process of answering old ones. Science is a process rather than an ‘answer’. It attempts to progressively increase or decrease confidence in ideas and clearly explicated hypotheses by subjecting them to logical analysis and empirical testing.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.